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Rockport Technologies Lyra Loudspeaker

Reducing enclosure resonances has been the increasing focus of speaker designers over the past two decades. The trend can trace its origins to Wharfedale’s sand-filled enclosures of the 1960s. Since that early primitive technique, designers have employed ever more sophisticated methods of building enclosures that add less distortion to the music. Indeed, manufacturers have engaged in a veritable arms race to develop the most inert cabinet.

But of all today’s elaborate and sophisticated methods for making enclosures stiff and well damped, surely none is as epic as that of the new Rockport Lyra. Rockport Technologies has long been a pioneer in developing innovative methods of cabinet construction, but the company pulled out all the stops for the Lyra. No other speaker enclosure has ever been built to this level of sophistication.

For many years Rockport has eschewed making cabinets from flat sheet stock in favor of advanced molding techniques. For example, the enclosure of Rockport’s Altair (see my review in Issue 214) is made from an inner and outer fiberglass shell, with the void between them filled with dense epoxy (see photo, a cross-section of the Altair’s cabinet, on the following page). This method not only creates a stiff and dense enclosure, it also allows cabinet shapes optimized for acoustic performance without the limitations imposed by gluing together flat sheets of material. An added benefit is a seamless monocoque structure with no joinery.

For the Lyra, Rockport has taken this concept to an extreme. Rather than make the inner and outer shells from fiberglass or even carbon-fiber, the Lyra’s two “shells” are massive cast-aluminum structures. The inner enclosure fits inside the outer enclosure, the joint is sealed, and then the cavity is filled with a proprietary, high density, highly damped urethane core material. The inner enclosure (which is also the baffle) is an intricately designed casting with extensive reinforcement structures inside to brace the drivers. Rockport created a 3-D animated video showing this technique (available on YouTube). The company calls this construction technique “Damstif,” which appears to be exceptionally dense, stiff, and well damped and should reduce enclosure vibration to levels never before realized.

But why go to such extreme lengths and expense to reduce what must be infinitesimally small cabinet resonances? Isn’t the Lyra’s construction overkill—a solution in search of a problem? Can such a small amount of vibration in an enclosure like Rockport’s Altair even be audible? Without hearing the same speaker with and without the Lyra’s cabinet construction, that’s a difficult question to answer. What I can say with confidence, however, is that every speaker I’ve heard that features an elaborate enclosure has reduced a specific form of distortion that in the past I’ve called “self-noise.” Self-noise is manifested as a less-than-black background, reduced immediacy of transient attacks and decays, loss of very fine timbral and spatial detail, a diminution of tone color richness, and compromised focus and clarity. All these phenomena occur at a very low level, but combined, they add up to a sound that exposes its electro-mechanical origin rather than one that instantly makes you forget you’re listening to anything other than music itself. It’s worth noting that the human hearing system’s exquisite sensitivity to minute changes in air pressure; at the threshold of hearing, the ear drum’s displacement is about one-tenth that of the diameter of a hydrogen molecule.

My experience with the Rockport Lyra suggests that reducing cabinet resonances even further than they were reduced in the Altair results in not just a small improvement in sound, but renders a gestalt shift that vaults performance into previously uncharted territory. Just a brief listen to the Lyra reveals what reproduced music can sound like when freed from “self-noise”—and exposes the colorations we’ve become used to in other speakers. As we’ll see, an inert cabinet is only part of the Lyra’s extraordinary design and execution.

The $169,500 Lyra is positioned in the Rockport line below the $225k Arrakis and above the $102,500 Altair. The Lyra is relatively small for a world-class reference speaker. Although far from the largest speaker I’ve had in my room, it is the second heaviest at 560 pounds each out of the crate. Helping to tilt it out of the crate (it is shipped on its back), I quickly developed an appreciation for just how dense the Lyra is— it feels like a solid block of lead. The enclosure’s graceful curves soften the Lyra’s presence, giving it a more organic and less industrial feel than that of many of today’s loudspeakers. The top panel slopes up and back, narrowing toward the rear. The Lyra is by far the best-looking speaker Rockport has made. The cabinet can be finished in any color of automotive paint you choose, but some specialized colors carry an additional charge.

The Lyra is a three-and-a-half-way, five-driver design with a rear-firing port. Two 6″ midrange drivers flank the 1″ waveguide-loaded tweeter, with two 10″ drivers on the bottom. Both midrange drivers cross over to the woofer at 150Hz, but with one midrange operating up to the tweeter transition at 2.1kHz, and the second midrange rolling off at about 400Hz. The woofer and midrange units are completely designed in-house by Rockport, as is the tweeter’s waveguide. As I mentioned in my review of the maker’s Altair (still the best $100k speaker on the market, in my view), each crossover in every Rockport speaker is hand-tuned by Rockport founder and designer Andy Payor. I’ve watched this process first-hand; he measures and hand-trims the speaker’s crossover with the drivers in phase, then reverses the phase of the tweeter and hand-trims the crossover components again to produce the maximum null. When the drivers are put back in correct phase, their outputs sum perfectly. In every Rockport speaker that has ever been made, Payor has hand-tuned the crossover. That, folks, is remarkable dedication to your craft and to your customers.

 

Rockport has since its inception been a proponent of reflex-loaded designs over sealed enclosures. Payor notes the advantages of reflex loading: greater sensitivity, deeper extension for the enclosure size, and lower distortion by virtue of the woofers’ lower excursion (above port resonance) compared to the amount of woofer excursion in sealed cabinets. The downside of reflex enclosures is that the bass rolls off more steeply than sealed enclosures (24dB per octave vs. 12dB per octave) and the transient performance is not as good. Payor believes that he has maximized the benefits of reflex loading while minimizing the drawbacks. Specifically, the Lyra, like other Rockport speakers, has a proprietary tuning that results in a roll-off of 12dB per octave in the first octave (20–40Hz) despite being a reflex design. Payor says that his high-efficiency woofers, along with careful port tuning and crossover design, allow him to realize this more gradual bass roll-off of 12dB per octave. Moreover, he says that the way Rockport speakers integrate with a room is more like that of sealed designs. He thinks that it’s a mistake for listeners to hold prejudices about a particular product based on whether or not it’s a reflex or sealed design, and they should instead focus on how well the alignment is executed.

The Lyra introduces so many innovative techniques that rather than describe them myself, I’ll let Andy Payor explain them in the accompanying interview. In addition to recording what turned into essentially a 75-minute monologue on the Lyra’s design, Payor sent to me 3-D CAD files of each of the drivers and of the enclosure. In another hour-long phone call with the CAD drawings open on my computer, Payor walked me through the drawings, pointing out the design details. I could rotate the drawings, section them at any point, and zoom in on details. He shared these with me not so that I could include such details in the review (they are proprietary techniques), but rather so that I would have an appreciation for just how much original thought and engineering went into the Lyra. From the outside, all speakers look roughly similar—a box with cones. But the Lyra is very different from other speakers that are superficially similar.

I’ll give you just a couple of examples. The baskets are massive, cast-aluminum structures that are unlike any others I’ve seen. The motor structure and suspension are equally innovative. The cones, made from carbon-fiber sandwiches of varying thickness, are created from a type of carbon-fiber that is exclusive to Rockport Technologies drivers. Payor had me zoom in on the CAD drawing to tiny details in a section view of each driver and of the enclosure to explain to me the engineering purpose behind even the smallest aspect of the design. Even details such as the angle of the taper of the surround where it meets the basket and cone have been optimized. Nothing was left to chance or included without a solid technical reason for its existence. Payor is as techno-geeky as it gets—and I mean that as the highest praise. Make no mistake: The Lyra is a monumental effort.

Listening
Rockport hired industry veteran and set-up expert extraordinaire Stirling Trayle to install the Lyra (see sidebar below). The setup was a long and exacting process, but one that I believe realized the Lyra’s performance potential.


I drove the Lyra with a spectrum of amplifiers: the output-transformerless Berning 211/845 with 60W of Class A triode power; a pair of Constellation Hercules II monoblocks (1100W each); and the Absolare Passion integrated amplifier with a vacuum tube input stage and a solid-state output stage delivering 200W into the Lyra’s 4-ohm impedance. The Berning drove the 90dB-sensitive Lyra with ease.

As I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t take long to hear what a breakthrough the Lyra represents. I don’t know how much of the sound quality to attribute to what must be the lowest-resonance enclosure extant. But I can say that the Lyra establishes a new benchmark of performance in the sonic characteristics that are related to enclosure vibration (or lack of it).

Perhaps the most salient, and musically significant, of these qualities is the Lyra’s stunning rendering of dynamics. This speaker is unbelievably fast and clean; a transient pops up seemingly from nowhere, and is over just as quickly. There’s no diminution of the force and impact of the leading edge, and no smearing of the decay. The Lyra is so fast that it laid bare differences in amplifier speed that I had never experienced before.

I heard this dynamic agility on both a micro level and a macro level. Well-recorded snare drum (Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature streamed in MQA via Tidal, for example) had a pop and dynamism that were simply sensational, locking in this album’s powerful grooves. The tuttis of the brass and woodwinds in big band music were brought to thrilling life. Entrances by solo brass instruments, such as the trombone on “Soft Winds” from Dick Hyman’s From the Age of Swing [Reference Recordings] had a “suddenness” that was startling. It wasn’t just transient attacks that were reproduced with realism, but the entire dynamic envelopes of instruments and voices. In the trombone solo just mentioned, the Lyra presented, with lifelike realism, the elusive quality of air expanding and contracting around the instrument’s dynamic changes. The Lyra made this quality visceral and palpable with a vivid dynamism. Moreover, the Lyra had tremendous dynamic clarity; the intricate overlapping cadences of the guitars, drums, and percussion instruments on the CD African Guitar Summit II were crisp, tight, and coherent in a way that revealed each musician’s contribution as well as how the disparate parts gelled into the whole.

 

At the other end of the dynamic scale, the Lyra resolved the finest nuances of dynamic shading. The speaker revealed even the slightest emphasis on certain beats or notes, and with that resolution came a greater connection to the musical expression. The threshold for resolving this dynamic shading was strikingly low. For example, very gently tapped ride cymbals varied slightly in volume, texture, and decay with each strike, just as they would in life.

A few select loudspeakers also exhibit excellent transient fidelity, but none to the Lyra’s degree. The difference in the Lyra, I believe, is that it delivers this transient performance linearly over the entire frequency spectrum, with no bands where the transient impact is slower or lacking in weight and impact relative to other frequencies. You can hear this difference immediately not only in the sense of horn-like life and vibrancy, but also in the communication of expression. I found that the Lyra was remarkably adept at conveying ethereal aspects of music reproduction, such as a pianist’s “touch” and the expression behind it. There was perhaps no greater example of this than Brad Mehldau’s stunningly beautiful nine-minute rendition of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” on his recent album Blues and Ballads (available in MQA via Tidal streaming—hooray!). It’s hard to describe, but I could just feel more of his expression through the Lyra, as though this speaker revealed another layer of emotional depth to his performance.

Yet for all its incisive palpability, the Lyra is extremely relaxed, gentle, and beautiful-sounding. It has an unforced quality that encouraged me to unwind and settle down into the listening seat. This quality is directly related to the Lyra’s outstanding reproduction of timbre. This must be a very low distortion loudspeaker, because it is lower in grain, edge, and metallic sheen than any othe speaker I’ve heard. Timbres are utterly liquid, gorgeous as they are in life, organic, and devoid of the synthetic patina that overlays instrumental and vocal textures in even superb loudspeakers. Consequently, the impression of hearing a hi-fi system vanishes quickly, easily, and continuously over a long listening session. The Lyra is lush, voluptuous, and colorful in timbre, yet underlying this apparent easy-going sound is a foundation of precision and resolution. The Lyra doesn’t achieve its liquidity by rounding off the rough edges; it achieves this by not creating those rough edges in the first place. This is true, of course, if you drive the Lyra with very clean sources and amplification—it is highly revealing of upstream components. The Lyra is a speaker you can listen to at high playback levels for very long periods without listening fatigue. Most hi-fi systems have a trace (or more than a trace) of a metallic-sounding edge that keeps you at arm’s length from the music. This is the same characteristic that causes your ears to tighten up during loud passages, or in anticipation of them. The Lyra doesn’t do that. Instead, it feels as though the speaker wraps you in music’s warm embrace.

The Lyra’s treble, and its integration with the upper midrange, is as good as it gets in a multi-way dynamic loudspeaker. The sound had a seamlessness and coherence with no sense of the treble as a separate component riding on top of the music. The top end was finely filigreed, with tremendous inner detail and not a hint of the brightness or metallic sheen that can plague some beryllium domes. Vocal sibilance was utterly natural, with a full measure of energy but lacking any annoying sizzle. Cymbals were stunning in their transient fidelity, cleanliness of timbre, inner detailing, and long decays. Their notes seemed to hang in space forever by virtue of the Lyra’s ability to reach down and resolve the finest details at the decay’s tail. For a great example, check out Joe Morello’s work on the terrific Analogue Productions’ 45rpm reissue of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.

The Lyra had an exceptional clarity that was the antithesis of confused, congealed, or homogenized. Every instrument was presented in vivid detail, even those buried in the mix. On the track “Somewhere, Somebody” from Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter [Impex LP reissue] a male singer accompanies Warnes in a sparse arrangement, sometimes singing in unison with her and sometimes in counterpoint. The Lyra presented, to a greater degree than I’ve heard from any loudspeaker, the illusion of two distinctly different voices, rather than blending them together into a single sound. This characteristic may not sound that important, but it went a long way toward creating the feeling of hearing musicians actually performing rather than listening to them through a hi-fi system.

The Lyra sounds “big” in every sense of that word—bass extension and power, dynamic impact, and soundstaging. If you walked into a room blindfolded and heard the Lyra you’d be shocked when you removed the blindfold and saw its relatively diminutive size. The bottom end was punchy and fast, seemingly keeping up with the dynamic agility over the rest of the spectrum. Abraham Laboriel’s percussive bass playing on the Nautilus direct-to-disc of Victor Feldman’s Secret of the Andes had tremendous snap and power, along with good solidity in the extreme bottom end. Compared with Rockport’s Altair and its side-firing 15″ woofer, the Lyra’s bass is faster, tighter, and more precise. The Lyra may give up just a little in overall weight and extension, but its superior transient performance, pitch definition, and harmonic resolution give it the more satisfying bottom end. Don’t let the Lyra’s relatively small size and use of two 10″ woofers prejudice your opinion of how low the Lyra will go, or how much heft it can muster. It’s competitive with many larger, similarly priced speakers in bass extension and power, but for the same money you can find speakers that move more air and have greater low-octave impact—albeit from a much larger enclosures. I should add that the Lyra exhibited no audible trace of its reflex design—no premature roll-off, no overhang or “slowness,” and no port artifacts or bloat. If I heard the Lyra without knowing whether it was a reflex or sealed design I would not be able to determine that by listening.

Conclusion
The Rockport Lyra pushes forward the state of the art in loudspeaker design in its elaborate and innovative construction as well as in sound quality. The Lyra delivers a horn-like visceral immediacy with its absolutely stunning dynamic performance. The musical effect cannot be overstated; the Lyra sounds “alive” in a way that other speakers do not. Yet for all its verve and panache, this is a speaker of great delicacy, capable of conveying the subtlest nuance of texture and shading. It’s also the most beautiful in timbre that I’ve heard, combining high resolution with lush textural liquidity. The icing on the cake is the Lyra’s small size—for a world-class reference, which it certainly is—that allows it to fit in many more rooms than other speakers of this price.

Andy Payor has put into the Lyra everything he’s learned about loudspeaker design over the past 35 years—and then some. It is truly as much a masterpiece of art as it is of cutting-edge engineering.

Setup by Stirling Trayle

Rockport hired industry veteran Stirling Trayle to set up the Lyra in my room.

Stirling visited the Rockport factory the week before my setup to work with and learn about the speaker alongside Andy Payor.

After 40 years working in the audio industry in various capacities, Trayle started a one-man business, called Audio Systems Optimized, to address the need for expert system setup for customers in their homes and for manufacturers at trade shows. So often the best path to better sound isn’t a component upgrade, but optimizing the setup of equipment you already own. Trayle is well suited to the job; he’s widely known for his set-up skills including specific expertise with turntables.

Trayle did for me what he would do for any client. Using a proscribed and exacting method, Trayle found the best locations for the speakers. Unusually, he spent the first few hours working with just one speaker; only after he was satisfied with the single speaker’s location did he turn his attention to the stereo pair. Over the past 28 years as a full-time reviewer I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the world’s greatest set-up experts at work in my home. As you can imagine, manufacturers are highly motivated to get the best possible performance out of the product. Even by that standard, Trayle was not only highly skilled, but was dogged in pursuing every last ounce of performance from the system. He’s an exceptionally skilled listener, and has developed precise techniques for getting the best sound from a given set of components. The result of his e ort is the sound quality I’ve described in the review.

If you think that your system isn’t delivering the full performance of which it is capable, it may be worth investing in a day or two of expert setup. 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Three-and-a-half-way, dynamic driver, floorstanding loudspeaker
Loading: Reflex
Driver complement: 10″ carbon-fiber sandwich composite woofer (x2); 6″ carbon-fiber sandwich composite midrange (x2); 1″ beryllium dome tweeter
Frequency response: 20Hz–30kHz at –3dB
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 90dB
Dimensions: 14.1″ x 53.5″ x 26.5″
Weight: 560 lbs. each (net)
Price: $169,500 per pair

ROCKPORT TECHNOLOGIES
586 Spruce Head Rd.
South Thomaston, ME 04858
(207) 596-7151
rockporttechnologies.com

Associated Equipment
Loudspeakers: Magico Q7 Mk II, Rockport Lyra, EnigmAcoustics Sopranino self-biasing electrostatic super-tweeters (with the Q7 Mk II)
Amplification: Constellation Altair II linestage, Constellation Hercules II and Berning 211/845 power amplifiers, Absolare Passion integrated amplifier
Digital sources: Aurender W20 music server, Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-SPDIF converter, Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC, Brinkmann Nyquist DAC (with MQA)
Support: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum equipment racks (x2), Maxxum amplifier stands (x2)
Digital interconnects: Audience Au24 USB, AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU, AudioQuest BNC, MIT AC: Four dedicated AC lines; Shunyata Denali conditioners, Shunyata Sigma power cords
Acoustics: ASC 16″ Full-Round TubeTraps, ASC TowerTrap, Stillpoints Aperture Panels (x12)
Accessories: Shunyata Research cable lifters, Stillpoints Ultra SS and Ultra 6 isolation

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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